Sarah "Aunt Sally" Campbell - Survivor Extraordinaire
Last Updated by
Born on July 10, 1823 in Kentucky, Sarah was the daughter of an African American slave named Marianne. The person who owned Marianne did something which rarely occurred during the slave era, and that was to draw up a will for the benefit of his slave Marianne. The will stipulated that upon Marianne’s death, her children would be given their freedom. That occurred in 1834 when Sarah was twelve years old. However, the man who owned Marianne’s daughter did not live up to his own promise to give the young girl her freedom.
Thus began Sarah’s life-long connection to Dakota Territory.
Sarah was sold to Henry Chouteau, the cousin of Pierre Choteau, the founder of Fort Pierre in Dakota Territory. Just entering her teen age years, Sarah was “hired out” to a steamboat owner who immediately assigned the young girl to the vessel’s kitchen as a cook.
For the next three years, Sarah traveled between Yankton and Bismarck on the steamboat, providing meals to the crew and passengers. In 1837, in a conversation with an attorney who was a passenger, Sarah reveled her dilemma regarding her “freedom.” Sarah explained to the attorney that since she now lived in a territory where slavery did not exist, that she should be set free. The lawyer took down Sarah’s life story and the next time he was in Missouri, he filed an appeal with the courts in an attempt to gain her freedom. He also requested that she be financially remunerated for illegal slavery.
A court in St. Louis ruled in Sarah’s favor and granted her freedom and one cent in damages. Sarah was now free at the age of 14.
During the winter of 1837, Sarah left her job on the riverboat to live in Bismarck. She immediately hired herself out as a laundress, cook, and midwife and established a successful self-employed service business. She married a man named Campbell in 1839 and gave birth to a son in 1840. Named St. Clair Campbell, he followed his mother’s example and became employed as a ferry boat operator at Fort Randall. There is no record of Sarah’s husband’s life or passing.
Through the ensuing years in Bismarck, Sarah Campbell became known as “Aunt Sally” and was the first negro woman to own property and an independent business in the Dakota Territory town.
For the next 34 years, Sarah was a respected business woman. In June 1872, the U.S. Army established a new fort just across the Missouri River west of Bismarck at the site of a Mandan Indian camp. Soon Sarah began providing services to the military units at what would become Fort Abraham Lincoln.
The arrival of the fort’s new commandant, General George A. Custer in 1874 changed Sarah’s life forever. Sarah received permission to hire on as a cook and laundress for the 1100 soldiers, teamsters, and others providing services to the 7th Cavalry on the 1874 Black Hills Expedition. She was the first non-native woman to enter the Black Hills. Sarah’s life and experiences on that trip opened new horizons in her life.
At the age of 51, Sarah, exposed to the excitement of discovering gold in the Black Hills and the possibility of becoming wealthy, joined a group of about 20 people and returned to the Black Hills in 1876. She became the first woman to claim a gold mining site on French Creek in what would become the town of Custer, South Dakota.
During the remainder of her life, Sarah owned a half-dozen mining claims and purchased a ranch near the northern Black Hills town of Galena. She raised cattle, which provided a supply of fresh beef for the miners and settlers. She hired miners who worked her claims and was able to harvest a substantial income from a silver mine that she named “Alice Lode.”
Sarah never stopped diversifying her sources of income. When necessary, she still provided laundry services, volunteered as a nurse when needed, served as a midwife, created a “wood camp” selling firewood to miners, railroad workers and settlers. She was truly one of the early entrepreneurs in the Black Hills.
Sarah “Aunt Sally” Campbell, died on April 10, 1888 at the age of 64. She is buried at Galena’s Vinegar Hill cemetery.
“Aunt Sally” lives on through the historical reenactor Joyce Jefferson of Rapid City, who has portrayed Sarah Campbell for audiences nationwide.
"In the Moment"
Interview with Gary Enright, Director, 1881 Courthouse Museum, Custer
Host: Lori Walsh
Watch an animated video featuring excerpts from the "In The Moment" interview with Gary Enright:
Learn more about Sarah "Aunt Sally" Campbell with the book: "Sarah Campbell: The First White Woman in the Black Hills was African American" by Lilah Morton Pengra. (Lune House Publishing, 2009.)